Born Standing Up

I can remember sitting on the living room couch, my feet barely hanging off the edge of the cushion, listening to records—or LPs as my parents still call them—through speakers that flanked our upright piano. Two of my favorites were comedy albums—Bill Cosby and Steve Martin. When I listened to my musical albums, like Sha-Na-Na or Disney’s Mousercise, I danced or turned cartwheels in the open space of the living room. But those comedy albums were like read-aloud stories, and for those I sat quietly and listened.

I don’t know how many of the jokes I understood, or exactly what it was that I found funny. I’m not really even sure if the comedy bits I think I remember being on those albums actually are, or if I’ve just mixed in later memories of their comedy routines. My recollection is spotty (I just typed “my recollection is potty”—tee-hee), but I listened to those records so many times as a kid, I’m sure it would all come back to me if I listened to them again today.

That was my introduction to Bill Cosby and Steve Martin, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I mean The Cosby Show—come on! I so wanted to be Denise. And I wanted a two-story house like theirs with a basement office for my dad to work in, just like Cliff. I wanted three sisters (because I already had the brother) so we could do lip sync performances on special occasions, just like the Huxtables.

Steve Martin was hilarious to me because he wore that arrow through his head or a balloon animal hat while he talked, but acted like there wasn’t anything weird about it. My all time favorite was his happy feet dance. That prompted many happy feet dance interpretations from my family. We do them today still. My dad will come in from the garage on his way to get a handful of chocolate chips out of the freezer and he’ll break into a sudden happy feet shuffle in front of the TV. It’s guaranteed to make me laugh.

Steve Martin won me over as a solid, lifelong fan when he appeared on both The Muppet Show (remember him playing the banjo and singing the Ramblin’ Guy song?) AND he was the surly waiter in The Muppet Movie. I watched his skits on Saturday Night Live with my parents and my brother. (Wild and crazy guys, of course. Another favorite was the one where he did a beautiful, romantic dance with Gilda Radner and then they’d suddenly break into a goofy, happy feet dance, and then go back to their traditional waltz. That description probably doesn’t sound funny, but trust me, the skit was. At least to my sense of humor anyway.) I grew up on Steve Martin’s movies, enjoyed reading Shopgirl, and there are passages in Pure Drivel and Cruel Shoes that made me cry I was laughing so hard.

So I was very excited to read Born Standing Up, his recently published autobiography. And you know what? It was better than I had anticipated. Seriously, if you are a fan of his, it’s a must-read. If you are interested in stand-up comedy or the entertainment business, especially circa the seventies, you’ll get a lot from it too. But what surprised me was that I took away a lot from the book not only as a Steve Martin fan, but also as a writer.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. I mean, by now he’s proven himself to be an accomplished and serious (but funny) writer between his movie screenplays, his novels, his comedy books, his essays for the New Yorker, his plays. I was expecting the book to be good, but it was different than I expected and better than I expected.

Some of the things I took away as a writer: He told the essential bits, and that’s it. Nothing felt extraneous, everything applied to the focus of the book, which is the story of how he became a stand-up comedian and what that experience was like for him. There have to be so many stories and events that aren’t included here, but what is included is entertaining and is exactly enough to give me a decent idea of what this time in his life was like for him.

There was most definitely care put into how he told his story. It wasn’t just a string of anecdotes. In the book he talks about how he always gave his stand-up acts a beginning, middle, and end and he clearly does that here as well. There’s a nice structure with the beginning talking about his early days working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and a couple anecdotes about his family life, the middle is his climb to unbelievable success and achieved dreams, and the ending comes full circle, reconnecting with his first comedic stomping grounds and his family.

He is self-deprecating and humble and gives a lot of credit to his mentors and friends along the way. In fact, a lot of the funniest lines are attributed to other comedians. But it is also clear that he worked really, really hard. This is a guy who, when he’s passionate about something, does his best to study it, and practice, and dedicate himself to improving his craft, whether it be magic tricks, banjo playing, telling jokes, or performing in front of an audience. This is a good reminder for any artist, I think. It’s easy to look at people, like Steve Martin, who have reached a certain amount of success and fame with the arts and think: “Well yeah, but he’s naturally funny. If I was that funny, I could do that too.” And while I’d guess he always had a good sense of humor, I think it’s shortchanging him to assume that it just comes naturally without any sort of thought or effort. What his book makes clear is that while he is a funny and personable guy, it’s the dedication, discipline, strategy, passion, practice, networking, and a bit of luck that got him to where he is today.

I just did a search to find an image of the book cover to attach to this post and came across a bunch of interviews he did on NPR. This quote from one of the interviews is a great example of how he has no airs about his rise to stand-up comedian fame: “I think it’s somehow an American story in a strange way, because I started untalented. I didn’t have any gifts except perseverance.”

The book is funny, insightful, inspiring; it’s a quick read. I highly recommend it.

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